Hand-Wringing Over Terrorism

In today’s column, the New York Times’ Public Editor, Clark Hoyt, examines the paper’s use (or non-use) of the words “terrorist” and “terrorism.” It’s a revealing exercise:

WHEN 10 young men in an inflatable lifeboat came ashore in Mumbai last month and went on a rampage with machine guns and grenades, taking hostages, setting fires and murdering men, women and children, they were initially described in The Times by many labels.

They were “militants,” “gunmen,” “attackers” and “assailants.” Their actions, which left bodies strewn in the city’s largest train station, five-star hotels, a Jewish center, a cafe and a hospital — were described as “coordinated terrorist attacks.” But the men themselves were not called terrorists.

As we noted here, “suspected gunman” was another term that was bizarrely used to describe men with guns in their hands.

The Mumbai terror attacks posed a familiar semantic issue for Times editors: what to call people who pursue political, religious, territorial, or unidentifiable goals through violence on civilians.

Generally speaking, the rest of us would call them “terrorists.” We wouldn’t necessarily wait for their “goals” to become “identifiable.”

What’s most interesting about Hoyt’s discussion of the issue is the centrality of the Palestinians’ terrorist attacks on Israel, which serve as a sort of paradigm:

In the newsroom and at overseas bureaus, especially Jerusalem, there has been a lot of soul-searching about the terminology of terrorism. Editors and reporters have asked whether, to avoid the appearance of taking sides, the paper bends itself into a pretzel or risks appearing callous to abhorrent acts. They have wrestled with questions like why those responsible for the 9/11 attacks are called terrorists but the murderers of a little girl in her bed in a Jewish settlement are not. …

The issue comes up most often in connection with the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and to the dismay of supporters of Israel — and sometimes supporters of the other side, denouncing Israeli military actions — The Times is sparing in its use of “terrorist” when reporting on that complex struggle.

Why, exactly, is that? Hoyt doesn’t explain. He continues:

The reluctance carried over when the Mumbai attacks began. Graham Bowley, who was writing for a Times blog, The Lede, said, “I’m aware very much of the sensitivity around the word, so I knew they had to be ‘attackers’ ” until the paper knew more.

One wonders what the paper learned, over the course of the terrorists’ murderous rampage, that finally allowed the Times to describe them as such. Whatever it was, it doesn’t extend, apparently, to the organization that reportedly trained and motivated the Mumbai terrorists:

Ilsa and Lisa Klinghoffer, whose father, Leon, was shot and thrown from a cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists in 1985, wrote a letter to the editor asking why The Times was referring to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the shadowy group that apparently orchestrated the Mumbai attacks, as a “militant group.” “When people kill innocent civilians for political gain, they should be called ‘terrorists,’ ” the sisters said.

Susan Chira, the foreign editor, said The Times may eventually put that label on Lashkar, but reporters are still trying to learn more about it. “Our instinct is to proceed with caution, not rushing to label any group with the word terrorist before we have a deeper understanding of its full dimensions,” she said.

It’s unclear to me what “deeper understanding” of a group that trained, armed and equipped the Mumbai terrorists to engage in both targeted and indiscriminate slaughter of innocent people would be required to conclude that they are, indeed, terrorists themselves.

Then, of course, there is the difficult case of Hamas, which celebrated its 21st anniversary today. In some circles, the fact that an organization boasts of its terrorist exploits would be enough to justify calling it a “terrorist” organization. But the Times’ approach is considerably more subtle:

To the consternation of many, The Times does not call Hamas a terrorist organization, though it sponsors acts of terror against Israel. Hamas was elected to govern Gaza. It provides social services and operates charities, hospitals and clinics. Corbett said: “You get to the question: Somebody works in a Hamas clinic — is that person a terrorist? We don’t want to go there.” I think that is right.

Yeah, that’s a tough one all right. It’s a lot like when the Nazis were elected to govern Germany, and they provided all kinds of social services and sponsored cultural events and sports festivals. That created a situation that was just too ambiguous for our newspapers to deal with.

What endlessly surprises me is how liberals’ discussion of this issue always comes back to the Israelis and the Palestinians, even when they have nothing whatever to do with the case at hand, e.g., the attack on Bombay:

James Bennet, now the editor of The Atlantic, was The Times’s Jerusalem bureau chief from 2001 through 2004. After his return, he wrote a two-page memo to Chira on the use of “terrorism” and “terrorist” that is still cited by editors, though the paper has no formal policy on the terms. His memo said it was easy to call certain egregious acts terrorism “and have the whole world agree with you.” The problem, he said, was where to stop before every stone-throwing Palestinian was called a terrorist and the paper was making a political statement.

God forbid.

Bennet wrote that he initially avoided the word terrorism altogether and thought it more useful to describe an attack in as vivid detail as possible so readers could decide their own labels. But he came to believe that never using the word “felt so morally neutral as to be a little sickening. The calculated bombing of students in a university cafeteria, or of families gathered in an ice-cream parlor, cries out to be called what it is,” he wrote.

The memo said he settled on a rough rule: He would use the words, when they fit, to describe attacks within Israel’s 1948 borders but not in the occupied West Bank or Gaza, which Israel and the Palestinians have been contending over since Israel took them in 1967. When a gunman infiltrated a settlement and killed a 5-year-old girl in her bed, Bennet did not call it terrorism.

Hoyt, to his credit, finds his paper’s employment of the “T-word” a little “conservative”:

If it looks as if it was intended to sow terror and it shocks the conscience, whether it is planes flying into the World Trade Center, gunmen shooting up Mumbai, or a political killer in a little girl’s bedroom, I’d call it terrorism — by terrorists.

Me too. What I think is more interesting, though, is the political motivation that lies behind decisions by the Times’ reporters and editors to use, or not use, the language that quite obviously fits the deed.

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